Skip to content

Lincoln Frames the Argument

May 4, 2016

Back in the autumn of 1859, regarding the issue of whether slavery was to be allowed in the federal territories, Democrat Senator Stephen Douglas said: “Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better than we do now.”  He then concluded they would have agreed with him that the Federal Government had no jurisdiction under the Constitution to prevent the extension of slavery into the territories.  Lincoln strongly disagreed.  He disagreed not just because slavery was wrong, but also because Douglas’s view was out of line with the Constitution.

Lincoln’s basic argument was this.  First, when Stephen Douglas spoke of the fathers who understood the issue of slavery in the federal territories, Lincoln assumed he meant the 39 who signed the original Constitution on September 17, 1787.  Second, if it could be shown that any of these 39 ever acted to prevent slavery in federal territory, they would certainly be acting in concert with the Constitution, and that would make Senator Douglas’s idea wrong.

In 1784 the United States had only one territorial possession, the Northwest Territory, and Congress voted on whether to prohibit slavery there.  Three men who later participated in the Constitutional Convention voted to prohibit.  Lincoln’s point: these men would not have signed the Constitution if they thought it prevented Congress from prohibiting slavery in federal territory.

In 1787, while the Constitutional Convention was still in session, two more legislators who later signed the Constitution voted to prohibit slavery in the Northwest Territory.  Lincoln’s point:  they wouldn’t have signed the Constitution if they thought it prevented Congress from prohibiting slavery in federal territory.

But what about after the Constitution was ratified?  Lincoln, in his Cooper Union address, had much to say about that as well.

Advertisements
Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: